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A Brief History of USS Constitution, “America’s Ship of State”

Margherita M. Desy, Historian, Naval History and Heritage Command, Detachment Boston

At the close of the American Revolution in 1783 the new United States sent its merchant fleet afar to trade American products for goods from Europe and the Far East. After 1785, however, there was no Continental Navy, and U.S. merchant vessels sailed unprotected. The vulnerable American fleet was harassed by the British and French in the Atlantic and the Caribbean in the 1790s. At the same time, Barbary Corsairs of North Africa captured U.S. vessels and crews and held them for ransom. The U.S. Congress authorized a new navy in 1794 “in defense of commerce” and, between 1794 and 1800, the Federal Government built six frigates. USS Constitution, launched in Boston on October 21, 1797, from Edmund Hartt’s shipyard (site of Constitution Wharf, U.S. Coast Guard base), is the sole survivor of the original U.S. Navy. Joshua Humphreys, the principle designer, determined that the ships had to be the strongest, fastest, and most heavily armed frigates of the era. Constitution’s three-layered hull, composed of exterior and interior white oak planking over dense live oak framing (ribs) spaced close together, forms a dense and sturdy structure more than 22 inches thick at the waterline. This is the ship’s “iron” sides.

USS Constitution’s career began on July 22, 1798, when she sailed to the Caribbean to protect American merchant vessels that were being stopped and captured by French privateers. This first conflict to involve the U.S. Navy came to be known as the Quasi-War with France. Several captures were made by Constitution and her crew, but a notable event under Captain Silas Talbot’s command was the first successful attempt at “underway replenishment.” Talbot, by trans-shipping supplies from a stores ship to Constitution without landing in a port allowed him to keep the ship at sea 347 days out of 366—a remarkable feat for the U.S. Navy in 1799.

By 1801, the North African state of Tripoli had declared war on the United States over perceived inadequate tribute payments to Tripoli by the U.S. Government. Constitution, under Commodore Edward Preble, sailed to the Mediterranean Sea in 1803. In October 1803, another American warship, USS Philadelphia, ran aground in Tripoli Harbor and was captured, along with all her officers and Sailors. Preble determined to remove the American frigate from the Tripolitans and rescue the imprisoned American crew. In a daring night raid on February 16, 1804, Lieutenant Stephen Decatur and a hand-picked group of junior officers and Sailors snuck into Tripoli Harbor to destroy Philadelphia. The success of this dramatic event led to Decatur’s promotion to captain at the very young age of 25. Preble and his squadron carried out multiple bombardments on the palace at Tripoli in August and September 1804. By 1805, the conflict was drawing to a close, and on June 3 the draft peace treaty with Tripoli was signed in Constitution’s great cabin, thus bringing to a close the first Barbary War.

As years went on tensions flared and steadily grew between America and Great Britain. With a rallying cry of “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights,” the United States advocated for the right of neutral trade with warring nations. At the same time, the United States rejected the British Royal Navy’s practice of forcing American Sailors to serve on its ships. Constitution was ready to put to sea when the United States declared war against Great Britain on June 18, 1812. Sailing in the North Atlantic on August 19, 1812, Constitution came upon HMS Guerriere, and the first frigate-to-frigate battle of the War of 1812 took place. Thirty-five minutes after the Americans opened fire upon the British, Guerriere had surrendered—an unexpected victory for the fledgling U.S. Navy. In this battle Constitution earned the nickname “Old Ironsides” when an American Sailor, noting that some of the British cannon balls fell harmlessly off the ship’s stout oak hull, purportedly shouted, “Huzza! Her sides are made of iron!” “Old Ironsides” would repeat this victory in two more battles with the Royal Navy—a stunning War of 1812 record unequaled by any other warship in the U.S. Navy.

USS Constitution’s career continued for decades. In the 1820s and 1830s, she would regularly sail to the Mediterranean Sea to protect American commerce. In 1844, the aging warship began a two year around-the-world cruise that took her and her crew to over 25 foreign ports, including Mozambique, Borneo, Cochin China (Vietnam), Java, and Mexico. Constitution was only the ninth American warship to visit in China, showing how important the growing America-China relationship was to the United States. During the American Civil War, “Old Ironsides” was a stationary training ship for the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. At the outbreak of the war, the warship was removed from Annapolis and away from the threat of being captured by Confederate forces. She spent the remainder of the war in Newport, Rhode Island, where the Academy had relocated.

Periodic repair and re-building episodes in Constitution’s long 19th century career kept the ship sailing until 1881. Upon being finally retired by the autumn of that year, she was sent to the Portsmouth Navy Yard to be turned into a “receiving ship”: a large barn covered her upper deck and included barracks and offices for Sailors and officers. In 1897, just before “Old Ironsides” turned 100, the ship returned to Boston for a citywide celebration of her storied career. After the turn of the 20th century, Constitution was restored at different times, including the massive 1927–1931 restoration that saw approximately 85% of the ship completely replaced. The “National Cruise” of 1931–1934 was in thanks to the American schoolchildren who had raised $154,000 in a “pennies campaign” toward the restoration and for the many donations of materials for the rebuilding. Constitution was towed by a minesweeper and visited 76 ports on the Atlantic, Gulf, and Pacific coasts, hosting over 4.6 million visitors. Since her return to Boston in 1934, the ship has left her Boston homeport only once. After the 1992–1996 restoration, during which structural strength was returned to the nearly 200-year-old warship, she was towed to Marblehead, Massachusetts, on July 20, 1997. On the following day, July 21, 1997, “Old Ironsides,” in celebration of her 200th anniversary, set sail under her own power for the first time in 116 years.

In 2009 USS Constitution was designated as America’s official “Ship of State”—the only ship of state in the world. The ship has now seen service in four different centuries, and “Old Ironsides” has accumulated many superlatives, including that she is the oldest commissioned warship afloat in the world and the world’s oldest vessel that can still sail under its own power.

Two hundred years ago the National Intelligencer boldly stated in its May 23, 1815, edition:

“Let us keep ‘Old Iron Sides’ at home. She has…, become a Nation’s ship, and should be preserved…in honorable pomp, as a glorious monument of her own, and our other naval victories…preserve her from decay: that our children, and children’s children, may view this stately monument of our Naval Triumphs…. Let us preserve her as a precious model and example for future imitations of illustrious performances!”

The 2015-2017 restoration demonstrated the commitment of the U.S. Navy to preserving and promoting its heritage by sharing the history of “Old Ironsides” and the stories of the men and women who have faithfully served with distinction on the warship’s decks for more than 220 years. When a visitor steps foot on the deck of USS Constitution, he or she is making contact with the beginnings of the U.S. Navy, a navy that has kept sea lanes free for more than 200 years. USS Constitution is “a Nation’s ship” indeed.

Published: Thu Aug 16 08:27:56 EDT 2018